After more than two decades in Hollywood, Maggie Friedman remains more committed than ever to telling stories about what it means to be a woman. The producer and screenwriter, who is best known for her work on Lifetime’s Witches of East End and ABC’s Eastwick, is now the creator and showrunner of Firefly Lane, which debuted on Netflix on Wednesday.
The new soapy romantic drama, which is based on the novel of the same name by New York Times bestselling author Kristin Hannah, follows the journeys of Tully Hart (Grey’s Anatomy and Suits’ Katherine Heigl) and Kate Mularkey (Scrubs’ Sarah Chalke), who meet as teenagers and develop an unlikely but unbreakable bond. The show chronicles the ups and downs of their lives over three decades, the universal tragedies that bring them together, and the contentious issues that put their friendship to the ultimate test.
Having fallen in love with the complex characters and the multi-generational scope of Hannah’s original novel, Friedman developed a successful pilot that was greenlit by Netflix in early 2019 for a 10-episode first season.
“I read the book and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love it so much. I want to do it, but what if I can’t do it?’ It’s rare to find a project that you really connect with, and I just knew I was going to be devastated [if I couldn’t do it],” she says. “I think [Tully and Kate have] a relationship that a lot of people can identify with, [one] that they either have in their lives or wish they had in their lives. It felt very aspirational and yet very real.”
In a recent conversation over Zoom, Friedman talks to Observer about the process of casting multiple actresses to play Tully and Kate in different time periods, the creative decision to use a non-linear structure to differentiate the show from the books, and the challenges of connecting thematic storylines across multiple decades.
Note: The interview contains spoilers for Firefly Lane.
Observer: We’ve seen some great stories about female friendships over the years, but this project is unlike anything we have seen before. Why do you think it is so important to tell and invest in these empowering female stories?
Maggie Friedman: I don’t think we have enough stories about women [that are] told from a woman’s point of view. I think the more that we have out there, the more it won’t feel like a niche thing. It’s just a human story like any other, but I do feel it matters to see our stories up on screen.
Also, I think it’s really interesting to watch the history. In the ’70s, when [Tully and Kate] first meet and are teenagers, you see Kate’s mother and she has this idea of “your generation is going to be able to do anything they want.” But we see the ways that that’s still not true for women. We see the way that so much has changed, but we still have so far to go.
I felt like, if we cast somebody who is already a star, you believe that when she’s walking down the street, people are coming up to her and being like, “Oh my God, Tully!”
You’ve assembled a really talented ensemble for this show, top-lined by Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke. Can you talk a little bit about the process of casting them?
We cast Katherine first and we sent her the script, and I hoped that she would say yes, but I didn’t know. We gave her the choice: “Do you want to play Kate or Tully?” And she said, “I’m more of a Kate and Tully kind of scares me, but that’s why I want to do it.” I was hoping that she would play Tully. I didn’t have anybody in mind when I was writing, but I knew I wanted somebody who was famous and recognizable because Tully is a star in the show. I felt like, if we cast somebody who is already a star, you believe that when she’s walking down the street, people are coming up to her and being like, “Oh my God, Tully!” I also felt like the Tully character is a tricky role because she doesn’t always do the right thing, and yet, Katherine brings this humanity and vulnerability to her where she’s actually very lovable, even when she’s doing things that aren’t that likable.
Sarah is someone that I had met years ago. I know her best friend—who’s her Tully or her Kate—and she introduced me to Sarah, and I was a huge fan of Scrubs. I just think she’s amazing, she’s so smart, she’s very sparkly and she can do anything. She has this way with Kate where she’s so endearing, even as she’s putting her foot in her mouth. I love them both.
You really hit the jackpot with Ali Skovbye (Young Tully) and Roan Curtis (Young Kate) because they not only bear an uncanny resemblance to Katherine and Sarah but they are also phenomenal young actors. Were those two of the hardest roles to cast?
I was super nervous because I knew the show would not work if we couldn’t find women to play them as teens that felt like they were them. We needed to find people who looked like them, who were really good actors, who had chemistry with each other. Katherine and Sarah have such great chemistry, and they really love each other in real life, so we needed that same feeling to come through with the young women who play them as teens.
We read a lot of people and we found two people who really felt like believable teens, are such good actors in their own right and really get along in real life and hang out. We got really lucky.
How involved was Kristin Hannah in the making of this season? Did you have an open dialogue about changing the trajectories of some of the characters or did she give you complete creative control?
It was a little bit of both. Early on in the process, I met up with her. She was so warm and welcoming. I told her about what I wanted to do with the story, and she totally embraced it. Before the show was picked up, I gave her the pilot to read and she gave me some notes, but she was so supportive. I consult with her and sometimes I’ll call her and I’ll say, “What about this and this?” She told me early on, “Here’s a couple of things that I think you shouldn’t do, but otherwise, go crazy.” She came to set, to the first read-through, to the wrap party. She’s been great [with] giving me the space to make it my own and do it my own way, but also offering me guidance and support when I need it.
While you wanted to remain faithful to the essence of the book, you chose to tell this story using a non-linear structure. What prompted that decision?
Well, it’s a different medium. When you’re making a TV show, it’s just not the same as a novel. It’s not as internal, and there were some sprinklings of characters that you kind of meet in passing and I was like, “What would it be like if you sort of brought out that character’s story?” For example, Sean (Kate’s brother played by Jason McKinnon and Quinn Lord) and some of the people in the newsroom in the ’80s. I just went from there and I felt like I really wanted to be true to the spirit of the book and who the characters were, but at the same time, make it my own and bring something of myself to the characters and the story.
As the showrunner, what was the most difficult part of “running the show”? Was it the management of all the different puzzle pieces or the need to find a way to connect all of the storylines across multiple decades?
All of that. (Laughs.) It was really complicated. In the breaking of the stories and the crafting of the episodes, it was such a puzzle because we had these different timelines—the ’70s, the ’80s, 2003—and they’re all very different from each other. They have a different feeling, but I wanted the different decades to resonate against each other thematically and to feel like they were illuminating something about what it means for this character to be 14, 24 and 43. That was the most fun part, but also the most challenging.
Figuring out the transitions between the decades, how you jump from one story to another. Finding the sort of macro theme for each episode because each episode has a theme, whether it’s motherhood or marriage. It was important that each decade and storyline felt distinct. We had hair, make-up, wardrobe and set design that all had to feel like the eras. I don’t envy Katie and Sarah who, on some days, had to play 24 and be in the crazy ’80s costumes and then an hour later, they’re playing the same character at 43 in a totally different era.
Besides the different settings, did you have certain temporal markers that you or other people used to keep track of the different decades?
In the writers’ room—and this was pre-COVID, so we were all in a room together—we had big dry-erase boards. One board was all about the ’70s and one’s all about the ’80s, and we had different color-coded things. When we could get really down into the details of a specific episode, we’d put it all on one board and weave together the different storylines. We had lots of paperwork that was keeping track for us. I wanted to be true to the events that happened in those eras. I also didn’t want Kate and Tully in the ’70s using slang that is from the ’90s, so we were just doing research and making sure we were accurate to the time period.
Was there a reason that you chose to name the episodes after iconic songs?
First of all, there’s a lot of music mentioned in the book. When I was writing, I made a Spotify playlist with some of the music that was mentioned in the book and some that were my favorites in the era.
If you’re going to do a period piece, it has to be partly about the music because it immediately puts you in that era. In the show, we use True by Spandau Ballet from the ’80s. (Laughs.) And it immediately puts me back in my childhood. I remember sitting in the car and being driven around by my mom with that song on the radio. Funnily enough, the songs we use as titles are not actually used in the show. They’re just meant to evoke the theme of that episode.
Season 1 ended with some major cliffhangers: Tully and Kate are at odds with each other at a funeral in the future, Tully has quit her job, Sean has finally come out to the rest of his family, Johnny is involved in a serious explosion in Iraq. Does this mean that you are already working on a second season for Netflix?
Well, I hope people watch it and if they do, we’ll hopefully have a second season. I will say this: I have lots of stories to tell, I have lots of answers to those questions that get asked at the end of the season. I’m just hoping that we get a chance to do more because we had so much fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Firefly Lane‘s first season is now available to stream on Netflix.